Unpaid interns miss out on both pay & sexual harassment protections

Posted in Sexual Harassment on October 18, 2013

Sexual harassment laws are designed to protect the rights of employees in a given workplace. That’s way nearly all employees are covered under California and federal sexual harassment laws, despite their income level and status within the company.

We say “nearly all” employees because one class of worker is generally not protected from sexual harassment: the unpaid intern. A recent sexual harassment ruling from New York highlights a problem that exists in all but one state. Unpaid interns are not considered employees and are therefore not protected from workplace sexual harassment.

The sexual harassment that prompted the lawsuit allegedly occurred in 2009 when a university grad student was interning at a television broadcasting company. The 22-year-old female intern was invited to the hotel room of one of the station’s bureau chiefs in order to discuss a possible future job.

When she arrived, she quickly learned that the bureau chief had ulterior motives. He allegedly tried to kiss her while grabbing her buttocks. The young woman was able to free herself from his grasp and quickly left the hotel room.

She filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, but a judge recently dismissed the case. In his ruling, the judge reasoned that because the woman was unpaid, she could not be considered a real employee and was therefore not protected under workplace sexual harassment laws.

This loophole is not just a problem in New York. According to USA Today, Oregon is the only state where sexual harassment protections also extend to unpaid interns; and that law has only been in effect since June of this year.

Most interns are young, inexperienced and may be desperate to find a job or make a good impression. As such, they are already vulnerable to being exploited or sexually harassed. Perhaps it’s time to ask California lawmakers why unpaid interns are not entitled to the same basic legal protections as everyone else.

Source: USA Today, “Judge: Unpaid interns cannot sue for sexual harassment,” Emily Atteberry, Oct. 9, 2013